Julie & Steve Olley – Croft 36, Harris

By Julia Welstead

I’m in croft heaven. Twice-my-height willows sway and flex in the breeze all around me, thriving on fertile coastal ground knee deep with grasses and sedges, buttercups and rushes, marsh marigold and silverweed. Veggie patches and fruit bushes blend into this biodiverse haven, organic in every sense. A polytunnel crammed with burgeoning strawberry, tomato and salad plants nestles into the willow shelter. An eclectic collection of sheds house the tools of various enterprises, from gardening to fishing to willow weaving.

Julie & Steve Olley - Croft 36, Harris

Earlier, I had arrived in time to witness a feeding frenzy in the Croft 36 honesty-box shed, as the day’s bakery products swiftly vanished into cars, vans and bike panniers. I had thought to politely wait my turn, but this was a mistake: when the coast cleared and I did pop my head into the shed, the shelves were bare, not a crumb left. The advertised opening hours of “11am until sold out” mean exactly that.

Lucky for me, Julie waved from the croft gate, welcomed me into the kitchen of their uniquely wonderful self-built home and fed me her delicious scones and coffee while we blethered. Steve, the other half of this Croft 36 partnership, and still testing positive to Covid-19, waved from a safe distance then vanished outside.

Julie and Steve took over the tenancy of Croft 36 in 1997 and, true to crofting tradition, have worked the land and coastal waters in a multitude of ways whilst bringing up their family. Draining the land via a lot of ditch digging allowed veggie crops to thrive, and the planting of thousands of willows created shelter and future cropping potential, which they are now coppicing as willow rods for weaving, and for firewood.

Food production via cultivating, fishing, baking and cooking (bread, pizza, quiche, soups, pasties, fish and seafood meals) all developed into a diverse, thriving, and very busy croft business. All produce is either their own or very local. Willow weaving products and workshops have also been added to their list of activities.

Twenty-five years on, Steve and Julie are keen to focus in and simplify, and have found wonderful help in the form of Sarah joining their team. Steve, in his own words (we have met him outside) is on a mission now to, ‘climb a hill before we’re too old’ and ‘have more fun’. With this in mind he shows me into their brick oven building – built entirely from scratch using re-claimed stone along with modern materials – complete with bread/pizza oven and seaweed drying racks. It’s a gorgeous space, blending old and new, tradition and innovation, and I can sense their excitement at this element of their ongoing adventure – though I’m not sure how it’s going to make them less busy! 

‘Offshoot, off grid’: pizzas and baking oven fired by own-grown willow, and buildings warmed and lit by the power of wind turbine and solar panels, they really are living by their own keywords:

‘ethical, sustainable, local’

This series is written by Julia Welstead in partnership with the Scottish Islands Passport. The Scottish Islands Passport App can be downloaded from Google Play or Apple’s App Store. A physical copy of the Meet the Makers Travelogue is available in the shop.

We love the Scottish Islands Passports’ Island-Centred Ethos, especially how the app also highlights ways you can contribute to the islands you love.

Read the rest of Julia’s series, and meet more amazing island makers.

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